The Ecumenical Councils

Francis Dvornik




1. Beginning of the Reformation  83

2. The Council of Trent (1545-65)  85

3. From Trent to the Vatican Council  92

4. The Vatican Council (1869, 1870)  95

5. The Vatican Council and Orthodox Belief in Church Infallibility  101




In spite of appearances, the papacy was shaken in the eyes of many because no serious effort was being made to check the decadence. The evil was so deeply imbedded in Church life that only a radical shock could arouse the conscience of the authorities and spur them to action. The shock proved to be more radical and dangerous than could have been expected and it was provided by one man, a friar and professor at the University of Wittenberg, Martin Luther (1483-1546).


The close connection between Luther’s revolutionary action and previous manifestations of the sort was revealed by the fact that he was impelled into open conflict by an incident similar to that which had spurred John Huss, namely by abuses in the preaching of indulgences for the construction of St Peter’s Church in Rome. It is characteristic that the first printed edition of Huss’ treatise on the Church was made on Luther’s initiative. And it was Luther also who declared in his disputation with Eck that Huss’ condemnation at Constance was unjust. Wyclif's declaration that the Bible is the only authority for Christian teaching was repeated by the German reformer.


The example given by the two condemned reformers was not, however, the main incentive in Luther’s revolution. Sharing with many of his pious contemporaries the anxiety of how it is possible to save one’s soul in view of the immensity of the Absolute, as revealed in the writings of Christian Humanists,





and because of the sinfulness of human nature, Luther found his answer in St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (1. 17): “It reveals God’s way of justifying us, faith first and last; as the scripture says, It is faith that brings life to the just man.” In his interpretation, only a firm faith in God’s promises assured man’s salvation. Thus, it seemed logical to him that there was no need for good works and for those ritual and sacramental means— Mass, sacraments, indulgences—which the Church recommended as helpful or necessary for salvation. The means were compromised in the eyes of many by flagrant abuses. The mediation of the clergy, necessary for the administration of these means, was rendered vain by Luther’s teaching of the priesthood of all believers. His doctrine that human nature is wholly corrupt as a consequence of original sin, and destitute of free will, justified his conviction that man can be saved by faith alone. This, however, provoked the protest of many Humanists, who were in favour of reform and sympathetic to Luther’s efforts, and the greatest of them, Erasmus of Rotterdam, spoke out in glowing defence of man’s freedom.


But in spite of these protests, Luther’s revolutionary doctrine continued to spread, helped by social disorders, national sentiments against the curia’s intervention in German political and religious life, by the desire of the nobility to control the riches of the Church, and by the general feeling of the necessity for radical reforms. Voices were heard on all sides calling for the convocation of a new council. Luther himself appealed against condemnation by a legate, to a better informed pope, and to a General Council in 1518, and again in 1520.


Although Pope Leo X condemned the forty-one theses, extracted from Luther’s writings, as heretical or false (June 15th, 1520), many regarded this condemnation as not final, as long as it was unconfirmed by a Council. The Protestant Estates in Germany claimed the convocation of a free council in German lands. Pope Clement VII (1523-34) was opposed to the idea, fearing a new Basle, the more so as the German Estates imposed conditions on its convocation which he could not accept.


The situation was also complicated by political entanglements.





The Emperor Charles V (1519-66), master of Spain, the Low Countries and Germany, was laying the foundations of a universal Empire governed by the House of Habsburg of which he was the head. France, fearing encirclement by the Habsburgs, tried to take hold in Italy, but Francis I was defeated and captured at Pavia in 1525. Charles’ success provoked, however, a reaction on the part of the papacy, which feared a Spanish encirclement in Italy, and of England, which also aspired to maritime expansion. France saw herself forced to conclude an alliance with the Turks, a fact which buried for ever the principle of the unity of Christendom and of Europe,


It was, of course, in the interest of France that Germany should not be pacified, as this would increase the power of the dangerous Habsburg rival. On the other hand, the pope was afraid of imperial predominance at any council held in Germany. So it happened that many years were lost and Luther’s revolutionary reform spread from Germany to Scandinavia and Bohemia. The Protestant Estates formed the League of Schmalkalden for their defence against the Emperor.





A change came when Paul III was elected pope (1534-49). Ceding to the pressure exercised by the Emperor and by public opinion, he convoked a General Council in 1537 in Mantua. It was transferred the same year to Vicenza but, on account of the opposition manifested by France, the Protestant Estates and, finally, also by the Emperor, the Council was suspended in 1539 without having accomplished anything.


The Emperor hoped to come to an understanding with the Protestants in public discussions but they were fruitless. The mission of Cardinal Contarini in Germany failed, and there was left only one last resort, namely, the renewal of a conciliar convocation. This was done in 1542, and the pope accepted Trent as its seat. However, new political complications suspended its opening for three years. The Emperor, again at war with France, was forced to grant certain concessions to the Protestant Estates, in spite of papal protest, and only after the conclusion of the





peace of Crespy (1544), could the Council be reconvoked in November 1544 for March of the next year. Having overcome further complications, it started its work in December.


The Emperor insisted on the deferment of dogmatic discussions until after the voting of reforms. The pope, of course, regarded the condemnation of heretical teaching and the definition of Catholic dogmas as the first duty of the assembled Fathers. Although he himself was guilty of nepotism and indulged in worldly pleasures, he was well aware of the necessity for more thorough reforms, and the Reform Committee, created by him and composed of learned and highly respected prelates, and led by Cardinals Contarini and Carafa, prepared a well-designed programme aimed in the first place at the reform of the papal Curia.


In mutual agreement, it was decided to treat dogmatic problems and Church reforms together. The principles adopted at Constance and Basle on the composition of the Council and its agenda were rejected. Only cardinals, bishops and heads of religious Orders were given the right to vote. All questions were first studied in committees composed of theologians, and their recommendations were then discussed in general congregations by the prelates entitled to vote. They elected deputies charged with the wording of the decrees and canons which were then approved in solemn assembly. The sessions were presided over by papal legates, Cardinals del Monte, Cervini and Reginald Pole.


It was logical to concentrate first on the basic teachings rejected by the Protestants. In the fourth solemn session, therefore, it was defined that not only the Bible, but also tradition is the source of Catholic faith. The canon of the inspired writings was established, the Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, declared as authentic, and norms for the interpretation of Scripture were given. Then followed the Catholic definition of original sin and, in the seventh session, the dogma of the justification of man was formulated. Against Luther’s doctrine of faith in Christ’s merits as the only means of justification, the importance of man’s free will in cooperation with God’s grace





was stressed, the result being the interior sanctification of the soul through sanctifying grace. Then, the Catholic doctrine on the sacraments was studied, and in the seventh solemn session was defined with special emphasis on baptism and confirmation.


At the fifth, sixth and seventh sessions, a number of reform decrees were published concerning theological studies with emphasis on scriptural exegesis. Others stressed the duty of residence by incumbents of benefices, and on the need for preaching. The number of prelates—mostly from Italy—increased from thirty-one to sixty-four together with seven heads of religious Orders.


The pope gave his consent to a council being held on imperial territory very unwillingly, and his legates and bishops resented the interference of the Emperor exerted through the prelates from Spain. When, in the spring of 1547, an epidemic broke out, during the eighth session, the legates took advantage of this opportunity to transfer the Council to Bologna. The Emperor took offence at this decision and ordered thirteen of his prelates to stay at Trent.


The transfer of the Council appeared to be premature. The emperor, at war with the Schmalkaldic League, won the battle of Mühlberg (April 24th, 1547), and, having a free hand in Germany, insisted on the return of the Fathers from Bologna to Trent, since the participation of Protestants in a Council held on papal territory was out of the question. He secured the concession that the decisions arrived at during the ninth and tenth sessions at Bologna would not be published.


Exploiting his military victory, Charles V endeavoured to reach a kind of modus vivendi with the Protestants, granting them certain concessions in the so-called Interim of Augsburg. These were the granting of the chalice to the laity and the noncelibacy of the clergy, both of which should be binding till the council should restart its work. Paul III, dissatisfied with this, suspended the Council on September 13th, 1549. He died two months later and the new pope, Julius III (1550-55), who as Cardinal Del Monte had been the former president of the conciliar assemblies, was more agreeable to the Emperor’s demand, and recalled the Council (November 14th, 1550).





The six sessions of this second period of the Council of Trent (from May 1st, 1551, to April 28th, 1552), were of quite a different character to the previous sessions, Because of further warlike complications with the Emperor, no French prelates were present, and the Spanish bishops maintained their independent attitude. The three German archbishops, Prince Electors of Mainz, Trier and Cologne, arrived, followed by ten other bishops, and the Emperor insisted on the presence of the Protestant representatives. Before they arrived, the Fathers continued the discussions on the sacraments, elaborated at the two sessions at Bologna, and published in the thirteenth session the decrees on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. They defined the Catholic doctrine on the sacraments of penance and of extreme unction. The reform decrees, accepted in these sessions, concerned the discipline of the clergy and their appointments to ecclesiastical benefices. They did not include, however, certain demands made by some of the bishops, the legates being anxious to prevent curtailment of some practices of the curia.


The discussions with the Protestant delegates lasted from October 1551 to March 1552, but were fruitless. The Protestants presented conditions unacceptable to the conciliar Fathers, such as fresh discussions of all controversial matters already defined by the Council; declaration of the superiority of the Council over the pope; and absolute freedom of the conciliar members from obedience to the pope. Again, political developments put an end to the debates. The Prince Elector of Saxony, formerly on the side of the Emperor, changed his allegiance and, in alliance with France, declared war, marching towards the Tyrol. The Emperor, unprepared for this change of events, barely escaped from Innsbruck, and the Council, without the guidance of its president, the Cardinal-legate Crescenzio, now on his death-bed, adjourned for two years.


Not two, but ten years passed before the Council could assemble in Trent for the third time. Charles VI was forced to come to terms with the Protestants, and the Peace of Augsburg (1555) established equality between the Protestant and Catholic Estates, making definite the acceptance of the unchristian principle,





Cuius regio illius et religio, which meant that subjects must follow the religion of their sovereigns. Disillusioned and convinced of the fruitlessness of his efforts to restore religious unity in Germany, Charles V abdicated (1556) in Germany in favour of his brother Ferdinand I of Austria, and in Spain, Italy and the Netherlands, of his son Philip II (1556-98). Paul IV (1555-9), fully convinced of the plenitude of his power over men and kingdoms, turned a deaf ear to all requests for the convocation of a synod. Although energetic in carrying out reform of the Church, especially by means of the Inquisition, he was guilty of nepotism and came into conflict with Philip II and Ferdinand I.


His successor Pius IV (1559-65) changed his attitude towards the Habsburgs, although he followed apprehensively Philip’s pretensions to the role of protector of the Catholic Church and the papacy. Assisted by his nephew, Charles Borromeo, whom he made cardinal and Archbishop of Milan—a case of papal nepotism for which the Church should be thankful—he was not opposed to true reform. Moreover, the rapid progress of Calvinism in France—Calvin’s doctrine spread also from Switzerland to Hungary and Poland—made imperative the reopening of the Council as the only way to save Catholicism in France. In his bull of November 29th, 1560, Pius IV thus reopened the third period of the Council of Trent (from January 18th, 1562 to December 4th, 1563, sessions seventeen to twenty-five). Delay in the opening was caused by more complications. Although the Protestants refused the invitation to be present, Ferdinand I hoped that they might change their attitude if the assembly was declared to be a new Council and was convoked in another German city. The French king also preferred to call the Council a new one, but wanted it to meet in Trent. The pope left this question open in the convocation, although he was in favour of regarding it as the continuation of the two previous assemblies. This difficulty was solved by the fact that the German bishops stayed away, fearing to be accused of not respecting the Peace of Augsburg.


The pope appointed Cardinal Gonzaga as president, assisted by four other cardinals. There were new difficulties to overcome.





Ferdinand I, fearing more defections to Protestantism, asked for the legalization of priestly marriages and the granting of the chalice to the laity. The Spanish and French bishops, wishing to be more independent of the papacy, asked for a definition stating that episcopacy was of divine right. These requests came to the forefront after the twenty-first and twenty-second sessions, in which the Catholic teaching on the sacrificial character of the Mass was defined. Ferdinand’s request for the “lay chalice” was left to the decision of the pope, who granted it for some German and Habsburg lands. The concession failed, however, to produce the desired effect, and was soon withdrawn.


The situation was saved after the death of Cardinal Gonzaga by the new president of the Council, Cardinal Morone. He succeeded in pacifying the Emperor, came to an understanding with the French and Spanish bishops, and opened the twenty-third session on July 14th, 1563. The Catholic doctrine on the sacrament of Orders and of the hierarchy was proclaimed, the obligation of residence was more strictly decreed, and the erection of seminaries for the education of the clergy was ordered.


Morone succeeded also in coordinating the many proposals for Church reform, submitted by the Emperor and other princes, by the French episcopate, Italian bishops and prelates, and presented forty-two reform articles to the Council for approval. The last two sessions were devoted to the debates on these proposals. They regulated the appointment of bishops, designating their duties, especially the visitation of their dioceses, ordered yearly diocesan synods and every third year, provincial synods, reformed the cathedral chapters and gave prescriptions for the appointment of rectors of parishes, emphasizing the duty of preaching. Some decrees were also voted concerning monastic life.


In the twenty-fourth session, the sacramental character of marriage was emphasized, and the decree Tametsi defined that only a marriage concluded in the presence of the parish priest and at least two witnesses was valid. In the last session, the Catholic doctrine on purgatory, indulgences and the veneration of saints, their relics and images, was proclaimed.





The decrees were signed by 199 bishops, and fourteen abbots and generals of Orders. All the conciliar decrees were confirmed by the pope on January 28th, 1564. [1]


In order to guarantee the authentic interpretation of these decrees Pius IV instituted a special congregation of cardinals which still functions today. His successor Pius V sent the decrees to all the bishops and published the Roman catechism summarizing the conciliar dogmatic decrees, for the use of the parish priests. A reformed Breviary and Missal were published at the same time.


The Council of Trent did not succeed in abolishing the religious differences provoked by Luther, Calvin and other Reformers. It proved, however, that the Church was still able to reform herself and her spiritual fife was unimpaired. It is the most important council of the Western Church. It gave clear definitions of Catholic truths and, with the decrees for Church reform, adapted ecclesiastical fife to the exigencies of the new age, so different from the life of the Middle Ages. The renewed confidence of the hierarchy and the faithful in the future of the Catholic Church was manifested in the Counter-Reformation and in zealous missionary activity in the new lands, organized mainly by the Jesuits. The last echoes of the conciliar theory were silenced by the pronouncements of the Fathers on the position of the papacy in the Church. The fact that all decisions were presented to the pope for confirmation indicated that the pope was indeed supreme over a Council.



1. During the debates the French and the Spanish bishops refused to recognize the Fifth Lateran Synod as an Ecumenical Council. Two specialists in conciliar matters of the sixteenth century, Jacobazzi and Ugoni, omitted the First and Second Councils of the Lateran and that of Basle in their list of Ecumenical Councils. In the seventeenth century, Cardinal Bellarmine introduced the practice which is followed by modern canonists, counting the Council of Trent as the Nineteenth Ecumenical, to which the Vatican Council was added at the present day as the Twentieth Ecumenical. It should be stressed that this number was not fixed by any papal decree. As already mentioned, the designation of a Council as ecumenical has not yet been thoroughly investigated. It should be noted that the editors of the Acts of Councils generally stop giving a number to a General Council after the Synod of 869-70, called by them the Eighth Ecumenical.








This strengthening of the supreme position of the pope in the Church was revealed also by the fact that almost three hundred years went by before a new Ecumenical Council was convoked. In the meantime, after the conclusion of the Thirty Years’ War (1648), it was clear that the division of Western Christianity into two separate bodies was to remain. The Counter-Reformation stopped the progress of Protestantism in Austria, Hungary, Germany and Poland, and the influence of Luther’s and Calvin’s teaching on Catholic doctrine as it was manifested in Jansenism was limited to a small circle of dévots in France and Holland. Religious tension diminished, minds became increasingly tolerant, but also increasingly indifferent to religious problems.


The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are characterized by the growth of absolutism in all European realms and by the secularization of the idea of the State. This new utilitarian trend in political philosophy was inclined to regard the Church as useful only in helping the citizens to fulfil their duties to the State. The consequence of this was the tendency to set up established Churches and to limit interference by Rome in them. French Gallicanism, German Febronianism and Austrian Josephism furnish striking illustrations of this development.


These new tendencies became the more dangerous as they were supported by ideas of enlightenment which had spread from England over the whole of Europe and which deepened the gulf between reason and faith, opened up by the Renaissance and the Reformation. Progress in philosophy and material sciences accentuated this evolution which reached its peak in France in the second half of the eighteenth century, sowing the seeds from which grew the French Revolution, which convulsed the world.


The French Church paid a heavy price for the mistakes of the absolutist era, and the secularization of ecclesiastical principalities (1803) definitely shattered the traditional constitution of the German Church. The new ideas of democratic and constitutional





governments, which led to the revolution of 1848, gave more freedom to the Church in many countries, but new progress in science and increase in material welfare had for its consequence the origin of new doctrines dangerous to religious life, such as liberalism, positivism and materialism. Social problems created by the progress of industry gave birth to socialism and communism, both hostile to the Church.


In spite of this, the Church, although unable to stop the flood of new and dangerous ideas, stood firm throughout these storms. A new hierarchy was established in England, Holland and America. On the other hand the Church suffered serious reverses. Clement XIY had to sacrifice the Jesuit Order (1773), Pius VI (1782) and Pius VII (1804) had to humiliate themselves before Joseph II and Napoleon I, but the supranational position and authority of the papacy was recognized more and more as the most important factor in Church life. A renaissance of Catholic scholarship in France and Germany in the nineteenth century strengthened this tendency.


Pope Pius IX (1846-78) was well aware of the danger which the new doctrines presented to the purity of the Catholic faith. He was also conscious of the supreme position of the papacy in doctrinal affairs. He made use of this prerogative in 1854 when, after consulting all bishops in communion with him, he proclaimed as revealed dogma the Immaculate Conception of Mary. At the same time, a committee established by him was classifying the principal erroneous doctrines of the time, the so-called Syllabus, which was sent with an Encyclical to all the bishops on December 8th, 1864. Eighty of the most important erroneous doctrines were condemned, among them rationalism, pantheism, indifferentism, naturalism, false views on moral matters, especially matrimony, communistic ideas and false conceptions of the relations between Church and State. The Syllabus was received with bitter criticism by the liberals, who quite wrongly looked upon it as a threat to modern culture. It was in reality a defensive effort to prevent the spreading of false doctrines among Christians.


When publishing the Syllabus, the pope was already pre- occupied





with the idea of assembling a new Ecumenical Council. After considering the opinions of some of his cardinals and bishops, he announced his intention publicly to 500 bishops present in Rome, in June 1867, for the celebration of the anniversary of St Peter’s and St Paul’s martyrdom, and convoked the Council in his Bull of June 29th, 1868 for December 8th of the next year, in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. His intention to make it a union council was thwarted, however, by the refusal of the Orthodox patriarchs to attend. Also his open letter to Protestants and non-Catholics to return to the Church found no favourable echo.


In order to prepare the way for the smooth working of the Council, the pope formed a special central commission of cardinals in 1865, under whose control six subcommissions worked on such subjects as dogma, Church discipline, religious Orders, Oriental Churches and missions, politico-ecclesiastical affairs, and the ceremonial to be observed during the Council. Prominent theologians were invited to participate in the preparatory work in the subcommissions. The pope appointed five cardinals as presidents, headed by Cardinal Reisach, who fell ill and was replaced by Cardinal De Angelis, a secretary (Bishop J. Fessler of St Polten), and other officials. All members of the Council could propose motions which had, however, to be examined by the Congregation of Petititions and to be approved by the pope before being included in the schema (draft). The printed drafts submitted to the Synod were to be examined by general congregations of all conciliar members presided over by a cardinal.


If the drafts were not approved, special subcommittees, called deputations—on matters of faith, Church discipline, religious Orders, Oriental Churches—elected by the Council had to examine the objections and propose amendments to the original drafts to the general congregations. The final votes were then made in public conciliar sessions, presided over by the pope. Only cardinals, bishops, including titular bishops, abbots nullius, i.e. exempt from diocesan jurisdiction, abbots, heads of Congregations and generals of Orders were authorized to vote. No special invitations were addressed to Catholic rulers.








When advising the pope to convoke a new Council, many bishops voiced their hope that the Council would proclaim the doctrine of the infallibility of the pope as dogma. Although this was not mentioned in the Bull of convocation, it was known that many so-called “ultramontane” bishops (mostly from Italy and Spain) desired it. An anonymous article published on February 6th, 1869, in the Jesuit review Civiltà Cattolica disclosed that the main object of the Council would be the condemnation of the doctrines indicated in the Syllabus and the proclamation of papal infallibility by acclamation.


The revelation provoked vehement protests on the part of liberal Catholics, and the leading German Church historian, Dollinger, answered with a violent attack against ultramontanism. The dean of the Sorbonne in Paris, Mgr Maret, was also apprehensive, but the opposite view was defended by the French writer Louis Veuillot, Archbishops Manning of Westminster and Dechamps of Malines. The Bavarian Prime Minister Hohenlohe in a circular note even invited the secular powers to common action against the proclamation of papal infallibility, but none of the European powers was willing to be involved in a step that would provoke sharp conflict with the Church.


Two French prelates, Archbishop Darboy of Paris and Bishop Dupanloup of Orleans, without denying papal infallibility, voiced their concern about the consequences of such a definition among Orthodox and Protestants. The majority of German and Austrian bishops expressed similar concern, regarding such a definition as “less opportune”.


The Council was opened on the date announced by the pope in St Peter’s Basilica. [2] Altogether, 774 bishops attended the meetings.



2. The ceremonial opening of the Vatican Council revived some traditional customs introduced at similar occasions in the past. After the solemn Mass at which the pope and all bishops assisted, the secretary placed the open Gospel on the altar. This reminded them of the ceremonial observed at the First Ecumenical Council, when the Scriptures were set in the place of the statue of Victory, which stood in the front of the presidential tribune in the Roman Senate. After the official sermon pronounced by one of the bishops, all present rendered homage to the pope, presiding at the session. Then followed a prayer to the Holy Ghost and the Litany of the Saints. This was observed already at the Council of Vienne. Then the Gospel on the sending of the seventy disciples (Luke 10. 1-16) was read as was done already at the Second Council of Lyons, at the Councils of Vienne and Trent. After his allocution in which he announced the aims of the Council, the pope intoned the hymn to the Holy Ghost—the same was done at Vienne—and recited the prayer invoking the help of the Holy Spirit. Similar ceremonial will be followed at future councils.





The proposed draft “On the Catholic Faith” had already encountered sharp criticism when first discussed in the general congregation on December 28th. It was completely revised by the subcommission in the following months, and the new version was accepted during the third session on April 24th, 1870, by 667 votes. [3] This first dogma decree was divided into four chapters with eighteen canons, which dealt with the existence of a personal God, the necessity of divine revelation, the substance of the faith and the relation between faith and science.


In the meantime, the Fathers devoted their time to debates on Church reform. Many proposals were presented and discussed. Criticisms of the curia and the college of cardinals were voiced, complaints about the excessive centralization of Church affairs in Rome were heard, certain bishops pointing out that the drafts spoke only of their duties but not of their rights; the Oriental bishops asked that their privileges and traditions be respected, and a reform of the Breviary was proposed [4];



3. During the sixth general congregation (January 3rd), Vérot, Bishop of Savannah, then of Florida, regarded as the enfant terrible of the Council, when discussing the schema on man’s origin proposed an addition declaring that Negroes also had a soul, being equal to the white man. This sounded like an echo of the American Civil War.


4. During the seventeenth general congregation (January 27th), Bishop Vérot asked that all legendary accounts should be removed from the lessons in the Breviary, quoting as an example the story of Constantine the Great’s baptism by Silvester I. He also recommended a wiser selection from the writings of the Holy Fathers, and was rebuked by the Chairman, who asked him to speak with more reverence of the holy Fathers. The most turbulent meeting was the thirty-first general congregation, on March 22nd, when Bishop Strossmayer asked for the removal of a phrase in the schema attributing the origin of all modem heresies to Protestantism, declaring that many Protestants love Christ sincerely and err “in good faith”. When he tried to bring in the matter of “moral unanimity”, at the Council, he had to leave the ambo under protest. Voices were heard: “He is another Luther, let him be cast out.” This was the only turbulent “scene” which occurred at the Council.





and the problem of drawing up a short catechism for all Christians was debated. The drafts were returned to the subcommittees, were rewritten and discussed again in May. Unfortunately, none of them was regarded as ready for the vote or for publication. Some of the drafts and the results of the debates were, however, used by the canonists charged with compiling the new Canon Law.


Even during the debates “On the Catholic Faith”, the conciliar Fathers were mainly preoccupied with the question of papal infallibility, which was to be decided during discussions of the second dogmatic theme or schema, “On Christ’s Church”. Very few bishops denied the truth of papal infallibility, but one fifth of them felt that its proclamation as dogma would be inopportune, fearing the apostasy of many liberal Catholics, a widening of the gulf between Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants, and, remembering the step taken by the Bavarian Prime Minister, a worsening of the relations between governments and the Church. The leaders of the minority were prominent and learned prelates, bishops of large dioceses. In France, the Archbishops of Paris and Lyons, Darboy and Ginoulhiac; Bishops Dupanloup of Orleans and David of St Brieuc; in Germany, Bishops Hefele of Rottenburg, Ketteler of Mainz; in Austria-Hungary, Cardinals archbishops Rauscher of Vienna and Schwartzenberg of Prague, Archbishop Haynald of Kalocza and the high-spirited Croat bishop, Strossmayer of Diakovo; in the United States, Archbishops Kenrick of St Louis, Purcell of Cincinnati and Bishop Verot of Savannah, later of Florida; in Canada, Archbishop Connolly of Halifax; in England Bishop Clifford of Clifton; and in Ireland, Archbishop MacHale of Tuam. In general, most of the German and AustroHungarian prelates were opposed to the definition, as were also one third of the French conciliar members; about one half of the American Fathers, three from Canada, and about seven Italian prelates, among them the Archbishop of Milan. When those prelates in favour of the definition, led by Cardinal Manning and the Belgian Archbishop Déchamps, started agitating among the conciliar members, they collected 380 signatures





to their petition. The opposing minority was able to rally only 140 prelates.


The debates on the first dogmatic draft and on the disciplinary proposals had shown that the rules for the debates needed altering in the interests of the better progress of the proceedings. Therefore, on February 22nd, a new conciliar procedure was issued by the pope. It specified that proposals for amendments to the drafts were to be presented to the subcommittees before the debates in the general congregations. When at least ten of the Fathers had petitioned for the closing of the debates, the chairman of the congregation should submit the petition to a vote and close the debates, if the majority prevailed. The minority protested, fearing a considerable shortening of the debates, but in vain.


Although the proceedings at the Council were held in secret, news of the intentions of the majority of the Fathers to proclaim papal infallibility as a dogma reached the public outside Italy. The stormy protests which it provoked seemed to justify the fears of the minority. Even Newman of England voiced his apprehensions in a letter to Ullathorne, Bishop of Birmingham; in France, the dying Catholic leader Montalembert published a passionate warning, but the sharpest criticism was again voiced in Germany by F. Bollinger. Protests were heard from many governments, and Austria sent a warning to Rome, threatening that the projected definition would alter the relations between Church and State in the Empire.


The pope and the majority of the Fathers remained firm, however, and the debates “On Christ’s Church”, after the preparatory work in the subcommission, started on May 13th. They lasted until June 3rd. The main subject of the debate was, naturally, the question of primacy and infallibility. Altogether, thirty-nine speakers recommended the definition, and twentysix spoke against it. Forty more prelates were about to take the rostrum. But 150 Fathers having proposed the closure of the debate, the majority voted in its favour, ignoring the protests of the minority. Among the most prominent speakers were the bishops Verot and Connolly of the United States and Canada,





who spoke against definition, and Spalding of Baltimore, who pleaded for definition, but tried to find a wording more acceptable to the minority. Archbishop Kenrick of St Louis, one of the forty who could not speak, published his prepared plaidoyer in a pamphlet.


After the debates on the draft as a whole, there followed special debates in a general congregation on the wording of the different chapters. The wording of the definition of papal primacy, in the three first chapters of the draft, which was debated from June 6th to June 14th, was accepted without difficulty. It was based on the definition already accepted by the Greeks at the Council of Florence, even with the ending of the canon, inserted at that time on the insistence of the Greeks: “as it is also expressed in the Acts of the General Councils and in the holy canons.” [5] The many amendments presented to the subcommission were concerned mostly with the relationship between plenitude of papal power and jurisdiction of the bishops. In order to give satisfaction to some of the bishops, it was defined that “this power of the supreme pontiff far from being any prejudice to that ordinary and immediate power of episcopal jurisdiction by which bishops, who have been set by the Holy Ghost to succeed and hold the place of the Apostles, feed and govern each his own flock, as true pastors, is really asserted and protected by the universal Pastor”.


More closely debated was the question of infallibility, contained in the fourth chapter of the draft. For the amendments in the sense of the minority twenty-two prelates spoke, and against them thirty-five. The subcommission rejected 144 proposals for changes. On July 13th, the fateful vote in the General Congregation disclosed that 451 Fathers voted for the definition (placet), eighty-eight against it (non placet) and sixty-two for it, under certain conditions (placet iuxta modum).


The minority was anxious to insert in the definition a statement making it clear that the pope’s infallibility was conditioned by the infallibility of the Church. As the pope refused to propose to the Council any new wording, fifty-five prelates decided to



5. See above, p. 78.





abstain from further voting and left Rome. So it came about that the definite wording of chapter four was accepted in the last general congregation on July 16th, by almost all of the 552 Fathers present.


The fourth public conciliar session was held in the presence of the pope on July 18th. The constitution starting with the words Pastor aeternus, which contained the definition of infallibility, was accepted by 533 votes. Only bishops Fitzgerald of Little Rock and Riccio of Cajazzo voted against, but submitted to the decision of the majority. The pope confirmed the decision of the Council.


With this definition, the work of the Council was not yet finished. Unfortunately, political events made the continuation of the debates impossible. On the day after the fourth session of the Council war between France and Germany broke out, and many prelates left Rome. Because the French army protecting the papal state had to leave Italy, the Piedmontese troops invaded the Papal States and on September 20th occupied Rome. The pope became a prisoner in the Vatican, and issued a Bull a month later proroguing the Council indefinitely. Archbishop Spalding’s and Cardinal Manning’s proposal to continue the Council at Malines in Belgium could not be carried out.


The bishops of the minority, who considered the definition as inopportune, accepted it, bowing to the decision of the Council, as confirmed by the pope. Bishop Strossmayer was the last to submit. Thus the unity of faith in the Catholic hierarchy was clearly manifested.


The decisions of the Council were accepted everywhere by the clergy and the faithful with the exception of some circles in Germany. Professor F. Bollinger refused to accept them and, supported by some of his colleagues, denied the ecumenical character of the Council, declaring that the bishops had been deprived of freedom of action. He was excommunicated, and his followers founded the Old Catholic Church, whose first bishop was consecrated by a Dutch Jansenist prelate.


In spite of the support which the Old Catholics were given by the Prussian government during the anti Catholic Kulturkampf,





the new Church did not spread as much as was expected by its supporters. Their number had diminished to about 80,000 in 1957. A similar movement in Switzerland—the ChristianCatholic Church—found support in the Protestant government of the Canton of Berne, which also erected an Old Catholic theological faculty at the University, which still exists today. The Church has about 30,000 followers and a bishop.


The fears of the minority at the Council that the definition would alienate certain governments from the Church were not unfounded, but they were exaggerated. Bavaria declared the definition as hostile to the State, and Prussia used it as an excuse for launching the Kulturkampf, which, however, could not break the solidarity of the German Catholics. Austria found this a welcome opportunity to denounce the Concordat concluded in 1855, but no State forbade the proclamation of the conciliar decrees in its territory.





The hesitation of the minority at the Vatican Council to vote for the definition of the pope’s infallibility was caused mostly by the fear that it would alienate the Orthodox Christians and be an obstacle to reunion. In order to understand the Vatican atmosphere, we should bear in mind that the conciliar Fathers were in a dilemma, as they had to deal with two extremes. On one side were the Neo-Ultramontanes, who wanted the definition to be interpreted in its widest sense. The protagonist of this attitude, in England, was W. C. Ward, editor of the Dublin Review. Although intransigent in this matter, Ward, being a theologian, did not go as far as the French Neo-Ultramontane Louis Veuillot, editor of the Univers, who wanted to see in the proclamation an affirmation of the quasi-omnipotence of the pope who should be looked upon as the source of all authority, both spiritual and temporal. In this spirit, the Univers spoke of the pope in a manner which was regarded by more theologicallyminded Catholics as almost bordering on blasphemy. Similar utterances could be read in the Italian review Civiltà Cattolica.





On the other hand, there were in France survivals of Gallicanism, although few bishops were still under its spell. The Gallicans wanted to limit papal infallibility, making it conditional upon the consent of the Church, after the pronouncement of a doctrine by the pope.


The Fathers wisely avoided both extremes when, approving at last, the following form of the canon: “The Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, namely when exercising the office of pastor and teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, is, through the divine assistance promised to him in St Peter, possessed of that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed his Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals; and that, therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, irreformable.”


The minority at the Council did not oppose the doctrine, but was anxious to link the pope more closely with the Church in the canon to make it quite clear that the pope, when making a definition, was acting not only as the head of the Church, but also as its mouthpiece, embodying the infallibility of the Church. They proposed several amendments in this sense, which were rejected by the subcommission as vague and unnecessary.


Their effort was not, however, in vain. Although refusing any addition to the canon, the delegation added an historical introduction to it which satisfied, at least, some of the irresolute Fathers. This is the main passage of the introduction:


The Roman Pontiffs have as times and circumstances warranted sometimes by summoning Ecumenical Councils, or by asking for the opinion of the Church throughout the world, sometimes by particular synods, sometimes using other means which divine Providence supplied, defined that those things should be held which, with the help of God, they had recognized as conformable with the Holy Scriptures and apostolic traditions. For the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter, that by his revelation they might make known new doctrines, but that by his assistance they





might inviolably guard and faithfully expound the revelation of the deposition of the faith delivered to the apostles.


The secretary of the deputation, Mgr V. Gasser, Bishop of Brixen, one of the first theologians of the Council, in his report to the General Congregation on July 11th, offered proposals as to how the canon should be interpreted. [6] When replying to the objection that the definition of papal infallibility would make future councils unnecessary, he said:


They will be as necessary in the future as in the past. . . . Whenever errors were so widespread that the Christian world was in danger, the Catholic Church opposed to them her most solemn judgement in a General Council. But the most solemn judgement of the Church in matters of faith and morals is, and always will be, the judgement of an Ecumenical Council, in which the pope pronounces judgement, the bishops of the Catholic world sitting and judging along with him.


[While justifying the wording of the canon, he linked the infallibility of the Church to the Pope:] It is certain that the infallibility promised by God, be it in the universal teaching Church defining truths in Councils, or be it in the supreme Pontiff, reaches to absolutely the same range of truths, those namely which belong to the deposit of faith. . . . Almost all Catholic theologians agree that the Church in her authentic propounding and defining of such truths (which do not belong to the deposit of faith, but safeguard it), is infallible, so that to deny this infallibility would be a most grave error. . . . The Roman Pontiff in defining ex cathedra is possessed of that infallibility with which Christ wished his Church to be endowed.


In this part of his exposé, Mgr Gasser made it clear that theological questions concerning truths not belonging to the deposit of faith, but safeguarding it, were not affected by the definition: “In those things in which it is theologically certain, though not yet certain by faith, that the Church is infallible, by this decree of the Council the pope’s infallibility similarly is not defined to be believed of faith.”



6. His speech is published in Mansi’s Collection of Councils, Vol. 52, col. 1209-30 and our quotation occurs in cols. 1211, 1226. English analysis and excerpts in C. Butler’s The Vatican Council (London, 1936), pp. 134 ff.





Another authority, the conciliar secretary, Bishop J. Fessler, stressed very clearly that the Vatican definition of the pope’s infallibility should not be extended, but interpreted in the strictest legal sense. The German scholars, attacking the dogma, extended its application to all papal legislation and all public official actions of the popes in the past and in the future. The famous canonist I. F. Schulte, professor at the German University of Prague, in his anti-conciliar tracts included in the definition the depositions of kings and the disposing of territories of condemned rulers in the Bulls of the medieval papacy. Provoked by these assertions, Bishop Fessler published a special treatise, [7] rejecting Schulte’s absurd interpretation and giving the proper meaning to the conciliar definition.


First, he limited the dogmatic definition of the Vatican only to the words following the formula Definimus—we define. All which precedes must be regarded as a very important introduction to the definition, but is not part of the dogma (pp. 38, 44). Then he specified clearly that the subject-matter of the definition must be only the doctrine of faith and morals. Moreover, the “pope must express his intention ... to declare this particular doctrine on faith and morals to be an integral part of the truth necessary for salvation revealed by God . . ., he must publish it, and so give a formal definition in the matter” (p. 57). Thus “the pope has the gift of infallibility . . . only as supreme teacher of truth, necessary for salvation revealed by God, not as supreme priest, not as supreme legislator in matters of discipline, not as supreme judge in ecclesiastical questions, not in respect of any other questions over which his highest governing power in the Church may still in other respects extend” (p. 43). And in such a definition, “only that portion of it is to be looked upon and accepted as an ex cathedra utterance which is expressly designated as The Definition’ ; and nothing whatever is to be so regarded which is only mentioned as accessory matter” (p. 65). Schulte pretended that the Council wished to extend papal infallibility to social and political matters as well. Fessler, however, declared authoritatively:



7. The True and The False Infallibility of the Popes, English edition, London, 1875.





“The pope cannot according to his own will and fancy extend his infallible definition to matters relating to the jus publicum, to which divine revelation does not extend” (p. 53).


Fessler’s treatise was approved by Pius IX who ordered it to be translated into Italian. This is important, the more so as Fessler’s explanations do not favour the interpretations which strong infallibilists, particularly Ward and Cardinal Manning, were giving to the decree. The latter extended it to all dogmatic declarations and censures of not strictly heretical doctrines, and to all papal legislation and judicial acts. This does not reflect the ideas which the two great conciliar authorities, Bishops Gasser and Fessler, had expressed in their explanations; because of their functions, they were in a position to know the minds of the great majority of the Fathers.


Bishop Ullathorne set forth in his pastoral letter on the Council the same ideas as Bishop Fessler. Important in this respect also is the pastoral letter of the Swiss bishops. They expressed their view in a more popular manner and limited papal infallibility in the following way [8]:


It in no way depends upon the caprice of the pope or upon his good pleasure to make this or that doctrine the object of a dogmatic definition. He is bound by and limited to the divine revelation, and to the truths which that revelation contains; he is bound and limited by the divine law and by the constitution of the Church; lastly, he is bound and limited by that doctrine, divinely revealed, which affirms that alongside the ecclesiastical hierarchy there is the power of temporal magistrates, invested in their own domain with a full sovereignty and to whom we owe in conscience obedience and respect in all things morally permitted, and which belong to the domain of civil society.


The last sentence excludes papal infallibility from the matters of jus publicum as Fessler has it, that is, from purely social and political subjects. Pius IX congratulated the Swiss bishops on their clear explanation of the limits of the infallibility.


It has been already said that the canonists who prepared the composition of the new canon law used the material in matters



8. Quoted in Fessler’s book, p. 63.





of Church life collected by the Vatican Fathers, but not regarded as ready for definition. Also in the section dealing with the magisterium of the Church (canons 1322-9) they were inspired by the dogmatic decision of the Council and defined it in a very clear, legal way:


Christ the Lord committed to the Church the deposit of faith, that she, by the constant assistance of the Holy Ghost, might inviolably preserve and faithfully expound revealed doctrine.


All those things are to be believed by divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the word of God, written or handed down by tradition, and are proposed by the Church, either by solemn judgement or by her ordinary and universal magisterium, to be believed as having been divinely revealed. Such solemn judgement is pronounced either by an Ecumenical Council or by the Roman Pontiff, speaking ex cathedra.


Nothing is taken as declared or defined dogmatically, unless this fact is manifestly certain (Canon 1323).


Fessler, in his treatise against Schulte’s extension of infallibility, declared (p. 53) that he knew of only a few papal declarations corresponding to the Vatican definition of infallibility. Some modern theologians find only twelve such declarations, of which six concern Catholic doctrine—the first, Leo I’s letter to the Patriarch Flavian before the Council of Chalcedon, and the sixth, Pius IX’s definition of the Immaculate Conception. The remaining six condemn heretical doctrines (that of Luther, Jansenism, Molinos, Fenelon, Quesnel and of the Council of Pistoia in 1799). The only infallible definition pronounced after the Vatican Council is that by Pius XII on the Assumption of our Lady. Papal encyclicals and Bulls—even that on the validity of Anglican Orders by Leo XIII—are to be accepted as right and expressing Catholic truth, but are not definitions ex cathedra. This judgement is extended generally also to Pius IX’s Syllabus and to Pius X’s Bulls on Modernism.


As concerns the relations between the infallibility of the Church and that of the pope, Bishop Gasser had already declared as unacceptable the view expressed by some strong infallibilists that infallibility resided primarily in the pope from





whom it is communicated to the Church. This relationship between the infallibility of the Church and that of the pope was very plainly stated by a prominent English theologian, the Dominican Fr Vincent McNabb. In his treatise, Infallibility (London, 2nd ed., 1927), he says (on p. 52):


It should be noted that infallibility is primarily given for the Church, and in some sense resides primarily in the Church. Neither the pope nor General Councils are ends in themselves: they look towards the Church. ... So may it be said in a very true sense that the gift of infallibility resides primarily in the Church rather than in the popes or General Councils. . . . Though popes and General Councils may be looked upon as the proximate principles or organs of the Church’s infallibility, yet it is true to say that in a certain sense infallibility resides primarily not so much in popes or General Councils as in the Church. When, then, it is recognized that Faith demands objective infallibility, and that conciliar and papal infallibility, though not subordinate to the infallibility of the Church, are yet referred on to it, matters are seen in their true light.


Dom Cuthbert Butler comments on Father McNabb’s interpretation in the following way in his History of the Vatican Council (Vol. II, p. 231):


This seems to be sound interpretation. The infallibility of the Church is taken as the basic idea, the thing known and accepted by all Catholics as of Catholic faith, a charisma or gift that Christ willed His Church to be possessed of and promised to her: “Go teach all nations . . . and behold I am with you all days to the end of the world.” Then it is said that the pope teaching ex cathedra is possessed of this same infallibility; as a General Council with the pope is a recognized organ whereby the infallible teaching of the Church is brought to authentic declaration, so the pope alone ex cathedra is another organ whereby the infallible teaching of the Church is authoritatively declared.


But even when the pope alone should proclaim a doctrine ex cathedra he can do so only after having examined the mind of the Church in this matter. After declaring that “infallibility is a divine assistance enabling the teaching Church to declare or expound the deposit of faith possessed by her,” Fr McNabb





(p. 92) compares such a declaration of the pope, the head of the Teaching Church, with a judge sitting in the judgement seat. Before making his declaration ex cathedra on the case in process, the judge is bound to hear all the witnesses. His judgement is binding only after he has examined all the witnesses. “In the same way, the ex cathedra judgement of the pope (or Council) needs the mind of the Church as its necessary preliminary material.”


These interpretations of the Vatican decree come very near to the Orthodox belief in the infallibility of the Church. Even the stipulation that a declaration ex cathedra does not need confirmation by the Church should not be irreconcilable with Orthodox belief. The comparison with the judge’s definition after hearing the witnesses again helps. “It would be false to say that the official ex cathedra judgement of the judge’s,” says Fr McNabb, “needs the consent of the witnesses to make it binding. The evidence of witnesses gives the necessary material for the official judgement, but does not give the necessary sanction.” In the case of the pope’s definition, the witnesses are Scripture and tradition guarded by the infallible Church which have to be examined to find out what is the mind of the Church. The best and most natural means to do so should be an assembly of bishops in a Council, but even the Orthodox tradition accepts, instead of a convocation of a Council, the practice of a referendum, a consultation of the bishops by writing. It was done by Byzantine emperors because they were regarded as guardians of the Orthodoxy. The place of the emperors is now taken by the First Patriarch, the Bishop of Rome. In the two instances in modern times when such a definition was made, namely the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, a referendum to bishops in communion with Rome was chosen in preference to a Council.


On the other hand, none will deny that heresies may result not only from the denial or the excessive restriction of the meaning of a dogmatic definition, but also from too wide a connotation. Church history supplies many instances of this kind and the same principles must be applied to the Vatican definition.





The Neo-Ultramontane opinions and suggestions found no official support, but the tendency to attribute all sorts of things to the vague formula “the spirit of the Vatican Council” still exists and may, if pushed to extremes, prove as dangerous as the opposite excess.



In conclusion of this short review of the Ecumenical Councils of the Church, we add a short evaluation of what both the Eastern and Western Churches have accomplished for the definition and clarification of the deposit of the Christian faith. We should not forget that every principle and every truth had its own growth and was clearly valued and defined only after centuries of evolution. This is applicable to the principle of supreme leadership in the Church as well. The Roman Church developed this principle more effectively than did the Eastern Church, not only because, from apostolic times, the successor of St Peter in Rome has been held in special veneration by the Church, but also as a result of special political and ideological developments, different from those in the East, which made the emphasis on a central authority as easy as it was necessary.


To the Eastern Church fell the task of substantially helping to define the revealed truths bearing on the Blessed Trinity and to build up the dogmatic system of Christology. This was done by the Eastern Fathers in the first Seven Ecumenical Councils, with the assistance of the popes, represented by their legates. The Western Church, always more interested in practical matters and having benefited from the Roman genius for organization and administration, concentrated on another field of Christian thought and considered it her special mission to develop the principle of universality, of supreme and central leadership. Events in the nineteenth century accelerated this development, with the definition of infallibility by the Vatican Council as its final stage. This natural growth should be taken into consideration by those Churches and bodies which did not experience the same evolution.


In many ways, though not in all, the Christian world finds itself in a position similar to that which characterized the Trinitarian





and Christological struggles, when a General Council proclaimed a doctrine and all Churches were invited to accept the decision. This acceptance was rarely achieved without a good deal of preliminary explanation and much display of firmness on the part of the Church which had done most for the final definition of a revealed doctrine. The Seventh Ecumenical Council is a case in point, since it was finally listed among the Ecumenical Councils of the Western Church many decades after its convocation. This does not apply precisely to the Vatican Council, so far the last in the series of councils, but the fact should be noted.


It will be the Church historian’s work to bring into the limelight the historical background of this century-old development and facilitate the theologian’s explanatory work on the definition. The decision of the Holy Father, John XXIII, to convoke a new Vatican Council confirms Bishop Gasser’s categorical affirmation that, even after the definition of papal infallibility, Ecumenical Councils will be as necessary and profitable to the Church as before. With the guidance of the Holy Ghost, the Fathers of the new Council will find ways which will lead to a better understanding with other Christian Churches and bodies.


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